PARIS — The man who now stands a very good chance of becoming the next president of France, Emmanuel Macron, is trying to shore up his campaign against Russian influence that might favor his opponent, far-right candidate and Vladimir Putin favorite Marine Le Pen.
On Monday, the day after Macron and Le Pen beat nine other candidates to enter the second phase of the election, which will culminate in a sudden-death vote on May 7, sources in the Macron campaign told The Daily Beast they have refused accreditation to RT, the Russian international television network.
“It is not just an outlet like the others,” said one of these sources, “it is a propaganda organ. Therefore we have decided not to give it accreditation.”
An RT staffer reached in London by text message told The Daily Beast, “All I can say is that we weren’t on the list and were told we can’t come in, despite the fact that our French producers applied for accreditation well in advance.”
The extent to which the Macron campaign was victimized in the past by “Russian-influenced” fake news and cyberattacks has been the subject of multiple reports in the European, British, and American press, but, as U.S. investigators have found, it is hard to draw firm conclusions about who is behind such operations.
The New York Times and Wall Street Journal reported Monday that security-research firm Trendo Micro has determined hackers trying to access the Macron campaign’s email accounts are from “Fancy Bear,” the Russian-backed group that hacked the Democratic National Committee. Putin spokesman Dmitri S. Peskov said Monday in Moscow that “this all recalls the accusations that came from Washington and which are still suspended in thin air.” He said Russia “never interfered” in foreign elections.
"RT has not received an official reason for its exclusion from the Macron presidential campaign HQ," the network told The Daily Beast in a statement. "We hope that his team will see fit to afford the courtesy of accreditation to RT shortly, and not attempt to curtail journalism, and manipulate the media, by selecting who can and can't report on his campaign."
The decision by the Macron campaign would appear to be a matter of abundant caution, given detailed testimony in the U.S. and extensive dossiers compiled by Western intelligence services about the way Russian efforts to subvert Western democratic processes have been conducted among Russia’s neighbors, in the United States during last year’s presidential campaign, and now in Europe.
Last month, U.S. Senator Richard Burr, head of the powerful Senate Intelligence Committee, warned that Russia is interfering in the French elections just as it did in the U.S. presidential campaign.
"What we might assess was a very covert effort in 2016 in the United States, is a very overt effort, as well as covert, in Germany and France," Burr told reporters at a March 29 news conference. Noting that in France the race for the presidency would come down to a runoff in May, Burr said, "I think it's safe by everybody's judgment that the Russians are actively involved in the French elections."
Clint Watts, a senior fellow at the Center For Cyber and Homeland Security at The George Washington University and co-author of the recently published, “Trolling for Trump: How Russia Is Trying to Destroy Our Democracy," testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee in considerable detail about the way Russian state-controlled media like Sputnik and RT (formerly Russia Today) fit into the overall strategy of Russian “active measures” or infowar:
Russia’s new and improved online Active Measures shifted aggressively toward U.S. audiences in late 2014 and throughout 2015. They launched divisive messages on nearly any disaffected U.S. audience. … Russia’s state-sponsored outlets of RT and Sputnik News, characterized as ‘white’ influence efforts in information warfare, churned out manipulated truths, false news stories, and conspiracies. Four general themes outlined these propaganda messages:
· Political Messages—Designed to tarnish democratic leaders and undermine democratic institutions · Financial Propaganda—Created to weaken confidence in financial markets, capitalist economies and Western companies · Social Unrest—Crafted to amplify divisions amongst democratic populaces to undermine citizen trust and the fabric of society · Global Calamity—Pushed to incite fear of global demise such as nuclear war or catastrophic climate change
From these overt Russian propaganda outlets, a wide range of English-language conspiratorial websites (“gray” outlets), some of which mysteriously operate from Eastern Europe and are curiously led by pro-Russian editors of unknown financing, sensationalize conspiracies and fake news published by white outlets further amplifying their reach in U.S. audiences. American-looking social-media accounts, the hecklers, honeypots, and hackers described above, working alongside automated bots further amplify and disseminate Russian propaganda amongst unwitting Westerners. These covert, ‘black’ operations influence target-audience opinions with regards to Russia and undermine confidence in Western elected leaders, public officials, mainstream-media personalities, academic experts, and democracy itself.
Circumstantial evidence of such activities surfaced during the earlier stage of the French presidential campaign. One infamous example of fake news, known as intox (for intoxication or poisoning) in French jargon, was a fake Agence France Press report in a fake version of the prestigious Belgian paper Le Soir with the headline, “Emmanuel Macron, favorite candidate of Saudi Arabia in the presidential election.” As the French daily Le Monde reported in early March, “Once put on line, this false information flooded the Internet sites of the extreme right.”
On the Friday before Sunday’s first round, Le Monde focused in on “four intox that have circulated in recent days": results announced on a dubious site called “WikiStrike” before any ballots had been cast, claiming to have monitored electronic votes by the French in the U.S. when there were no electronic ballots at all in the French elections; supposed revelations about an offshore account held by Macron, which were totally false; a fake poll showing that one of the most negligible of the 11 candidates would win the first round; and a dubious study putting far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon far ahead of the field. (In the event, he placed fourth.)
In fact, it is far from clear that these specific dirty tricks can be ascribed to Russians or “Russian influence,” as a study recently cited by Britain’s The Independent suggests.
And here’s the irony: during the first round of the French elections, three of the four leading candidates were actively pro-Russian. Mélenchon proposed an international conference with Moscow to renegotiate Europe’s borders. François Fillon, a former prime minister, took a $50,000 consulting fee to arrange a meeting between Putin and a Lebanese pipeline builder. Le Pen, whose party received direct financing from a Russian bank in 2014 and endorsed Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, was received personally at the Kremlin by Russian President Putin just a month ago.
The only one of the four leading French candidates who built his campaign around strong support for a strong European Union, which Putin hates and sees as an obstacle to his desire for a revived Russian Empire, was Emmanuel Macron.
So now that the stakes are high, and the opposition between the candidates in bold relief, it’s not hard to see why Macron’s staff would decide—even at the risk of accusations they are stifling a free press—that RT reporters need to be treated a little differently from the rest of the world’s media.